why is plainchant poetry?

“…all Gregorian chants have a special unmistakable character, which provides their particular attraction and fascination. The reason for this is to be sought in the principles, common to all these compositions, on which the text is set to music. The relationship between words and music is such that the melody is entirely determined by the text, down to the last detail, resulting in a “word melody” in the fullest sense.

The texts are either treated “syllabically,” i.e. with one note per syllable, or “melismatically,” with a single syllable being set to several notes. A “melisma,” that is to say the rich adornment of a syllable or a high note, creates a special emphasis within the melody, and important syllables or words are highlighted in this way.”

From sleeve notes for Gregorian chant performances by the Schola Cantorum of Amsterdam Students.  I’m a big fan of GC without knowing anything much about it at all, mostly I think because plainchant is the only vocal music I can stand to have on while working or trying to do anything requiring focused thought.  Whale Child and his older brother don’t exactly clamour for it, but they do carry on quite happily with whatever they are doing while it’s on (which is quite an endorsement, believe me) and I imagine when they’re older they’ll unthinkingly hunt down GC by various Schola Cantorum manifestations, the way my siblings and I have all somehow managed to acquire over the years parental music foibles such as The Pearl Fishers and The World of Miriam Makeba and Poems, Prayers & Promises (you heard me, all three times. I don’t actually think I really like any of them, but at this point that’s like saying I hate my nails or I hate my butt. No doubt you do, but hey, they’re yours — get over it.)

Anyhow, that whole melismatic thing is very attractive. This Wiki article goes into more detail:

“.. some melismatic chants have syllables that are sung to a long series of notes, ranging from five or six notes per syllable to over sixty..”

How’s that for a poetic device to highlight important words or syllables? Sixty notes per syllable! Chalk one up for music.  

قيس و ليلى

That says Qays and Layla. Remember how Miss Marple always said that one need look no further than the smallest village’s insular life to find the full range of human potential and experience? The more I travel the world and the more places I live, the more I am convinced of the truth of this in the bonest part of my bones, and the more uninteresting the surface ways people try to differentiate themselves from each other and give themselves a sense of belonging somewhere special become.  I find it harder and harder to be interested in local customs and traditions in each new place I live.  

What is more interesting is identifying the Hans DeWitt or the Susannah Peters or the Seck family in each community, whatever the country, whatever the continent. Because the same people are always there, everywhere, wherever. 

a moon of your own


The Moon is an accurate curved relief of the real thing, and is designed to be mounted on your bedroom wall. Using a mini remote control, you can control the phases of the moon or leave it on automatic and watch it phase through twelve stages, from Waning Crescent through Waxing Gibbous to New Moon.

You know you want one. From I Want One of Those.

punctuation angst

I can so relate to this post from Stick Poet Super Hero. Some days I’ll want a piece all punctuated and nicely capped — totally strict and very prim with its shoelaces tied and hair parted – and other days, I’ll want the same piece in muddy bare feet running up a hillside and singing a raucous song – with no caps and just maybe a vagrant comma or two.

I’m not very good at perceiving personal trends, but it seems to me that the more I move away from work-shopping, the barer and raucouser things seem to be getting.

Which may or may not be a good thing.

The Politics of Acts of Fiction

Sefton adds a meaty comment to the What Makes the Personal Political post below (scroll down to the end of the comments). Including poetry in fiction, he argues that fiction’s modes of construction and operation are inherently political, so that fiction as a whole acts a kind of subversive sleeper agent. 

Hm. I might buy the argument in concept, but would definitely regard it as a separate one from the what is engaged literature question.  


Lorsque, par un décret des puissances suprêmes,
Le Poète apparaît en ce monde ennuyé,
Sa mère épouvantée et pleine de blasphèmes
Crispe ses poings vers Dieu, qui la prend en pitié:

— «Ah! que n’ai-je mis bas tout un noeud de vipères,
Plutôt que de nourrir cette dérision!
Maudite soit la nuit aux plaisirs éphémères
Où mon ventre a conçu mon expiation!

etc etc. This stuff barely works in the original, and has pretty much no chance in translation (scroll down at link).  

I suppose back in the day being a poet was a trade, a profession, a thing one was. Now it’s just a fold in one’s life, a crease, a thing that the important people in one’s life cannot fathom and have zero interest in. A sixth finger kind of thing.

Dark Emerald Bones

The Jewel

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

- James Wright

Real Life and the Internet

Another interesting post on Reginald Shepherd’s blog, entitled A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom. The post bears all the usual Shepherd hallmarks of clarity and thoughtfulness and everything he says about new wannabe writers is totally true. However, the most interesting thing to me is how I know that what he writes is bang on the mark, since I’ve never been in or near a creative writing classroom in my life.

The answer is from online workshops, of course. 

Now would that be the internet imitating real life, or being real life?

Favorite bit:

Because students look at their own poems and see not the words they have written but the thoughts, emotions, and experiences the word point to, they tend to write poems as captions to pictures that aren’t there, providing the meaning of something that isn’t present. The meaning is presented without giving the reader the object or situation that would actually be doing the meaning. If they do include images and concrete particulars, they will often not trust those to convey the meaning or “message” without such commentary or explanation.

I engage, you engage, we engage

OK, we’re getting some clarity here. We acknowledge that all this talk of engagement was fated at some point to revert to Sartre (who after all coined the very term littérature engagée). 

This helpful scholar writes of Sartre’s “Engaged Theatre”:

He wrote for the stage in order to act in history, to engage his audience in issues of collective concern, and to change – or explore what it means to change – social reality.

Which I think about covers it all.

But for extra credit, here’s an essay by Kristin Prevallet on the concept of littérature engagée and how it has slipped and morphed in our perception over the years. (And yes, I know — what are people thinking when they put such tiny black font on a red background? Copy and paste it into a Word document for civilized reading.)

I must admit I’ve been side-tracked by focusing on the difference between grappling artistically with the very structures of human consciousness (woe is us, we’re screwed because we’re human!) which is where I see people like Eliot more or less coming from, and grappling artistically with the bum raps humans deal each other (woe is human sub-group us, we’re screwed because someone other human sub-group more powerful than us has decided to screw us!) which is where I see people like Brathwaite more or less coming from.

I still think this is an important distinction, but no longer in the context of defining engagement, I think, as both arenas seem to fall safely into the “act in history” context quoted above.

And yes, I see all that on solitude vs community. As in the artist Jonas in Camus’ L’Exil et le Royaume whose last verbal canvas read ambiguously (was that a t or a d, now?) – Solitaire or Solidaire. Two sides of the same coin. Effective art requires both. (And hm. Let’s see. Would that be yet Another Ghastly Continuum in Human Affairs?)


is being mysterious and not at the moment enlightening our particular corner of darkness.

We asked before: What is engaged poetry?

Is it (1) a way of writing stamped by awareness of creating one’s own meaning and values, refusing convention, choosing and deciding minute by minute, living in doubt, regarding nothing as ever settled?

Or is engaged poetry (2) political advocacy – soap-boxing for the rights of one or another of a range of oppressed social groups?

(Sidebar question: May we legitimately consider humanity an “oppressed social group”? Is us against the gods existentially the same as us-human-Group-A against them-human-Group-B?)

Question: Is there a difference between (1) and (2)?

Yes. The first, necessarily, is an existentially creative mode, and a solitary mode (Sidebar question: Which mode of those two comes first?).

The second is a solidarity-based mode, and therefore more likely to be (but not necessarily?) existentially imitative.

The only thing I will point out to all whose heads are exploding at this point is that Scavella started it. Heh.

Headache time!

The Vigil

by Yvor Winters

To grind out bread by facing God!
The elbows, bone wedged
into wood with stubborn grief; the hard face
gripping the mad night in the vision’s vise.

The floor burns underfoot, atomic
flickering to feigned rigidity: God’s
fierce derision, and outside the oak
is living slowly but is strong; it grips
a moment to a thousand years; and it
will move across our gasping
bodies in the end.

This is no
place to wait out Time. To see you
strikes my heart with terror,
speeding Time to violence and death.

The thought, the leap, is measured: madness
will return to sanity. The pendulum. Here.
Trapped in Time.


Don’t ask me why I periodically feel the compulsion to enter the desperate headache chamber of Yvor Winters.  So bleak and pipe-clanging and Sisyphus. And so creepily Thérèse Desqueyroux, as anyone knows who ever suffered through French Lit and Mauriac going on about un pouvoir départi aux créatures les plus chargées de fatalité [..] ce pouvoir de dire non à la loi qui les écrase. Il leur est demandé seulement de ne pas se résigner à la nuit.

Which basically means: here’s a study of sustained obstinate ability to live banging one’s head against a brick wall.

Thank-you, Yvor.

Et al.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

by William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give –yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


PFFA has a talk with itself about itself here and here. Many nuances, of course, but the basic division does not seem to me to be about the overall tell it like it is, not for the faint-hearted ethos of PFFA, but over fairly specific questions of feedback phrasing and delivery. I think. I must say I’m firmly on the if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen side of things, but it’s good to see PFFA debating such things in so lively a fashion.